Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Joe Green, the world's greatest opera composer

That's how my first music teacher referred to this guy, whose name (translated from Italian) is indeed Joseph Green:

And just in time for Opera Carolina's October production of "Nabucco" comes a new book from Amadeus Press in its "Unlocking the Masters" series: Victor Lederer's "Verdi: The Opera and Choral Works."

I had already read "The Great Instrumental Works," M. Owen Lee's installment in this series, so I knew what to expect: A compact, lucid evaluation of all of Giuseppe Verdi's operas (including the obscure ones) and requiem mass, with whole chapters devoted to the most significant pieces.

Lederer separates Verdi's catalogue into major and lesser works (correctly, from my point of view), summarizes plots, indicates key arias and ensembles, and offers brief but pointed critical commentary. Even someone who thinks he's an expert on the composer might find insights here.

Most crucially, the book comes with a 79-minute CD of Golden Age performances of Verdi's arias. (No choruses, though. So no "Va, pensiero" from "Nabucco," the composer's first hit tune and successful show.) The oldest of these arias brings us tenor Edmond Clément singing "La donna e mobile" in French in 1904; the newest come from Bulgarian bass Boris Christoff and Italian tenor Mario del Monaco, both singing in Italian during the 1950s. If your grandfather droned on about the irreplaceable Claudia Muzio and Rosa Ponselle, you'll find out what he meant.

If you've never heard a note of opera, you'll want to start with a different overview of the art form. If you're already convinced that Verdi has no peer as a composer for the stage -- which I believe, Mozart fanatic though I am -- this will be a fine way to familiarize yourself quickly with Big Joe Green.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Great young pianists come to Charlotte

Technically, only one of them is coming in person; the other's arriving on disc. But both these guys knock me out.

I saw Inon Barnatan this spring at Spoleto Festival USA, where he played a revelatory version of Mendelssohn's First Piano Trio with violinist Livia Sohn and cellist David Ying. After 40 years of listening to classical music, I seldom hear performances that make me rethink a familiar piece of music deeply; this one did. I couldn't find a video of it, so here's Barnatan playing the first movement of a late Schubert sonata.

The Israeli pianist wasn't supposed to come to Charlotte. But when Mandy Patinkin cancelled his season-ending appearance with Charlotte Concerts, the group snagged Barnatan and cellist Alisa Weilerstein (herself a Spoleto and Charlotte Symphony alum) for a duo evening. I can't imagine better fortune: We're getting one of the world's most in-demand cellists and the Israeli pianist who has become the New York Philharmonic's first Artist in Association, which means he has been booked there for three years' worth of concerts and recitals.

By the way, Charlotte Concerts opens its Halton Theater season Oct. 10 with a pair of pianists who reportedly cook up remarkable adaptations of the classics. I've never seen Anderson and Roe, except on YouTube. Here's their version of Astor Piazzola's "Libertango:"

And last but by no means least, the other keyboard whiz I've been listening to lately is Igor Levit, who's the youngest of the lot (27 to Barnatan's 35). I praised his late Beethoven sonatas in another post, and now I've been enjoying his set of Bach partitas. Here's a sampling of the first partita that shows his style: fluid, introspective, emotional (not a word I always associate with Bach, especially in the partitas) and warm:

The Russian-born, German-based pianist plays nowhere closer to Charlotte than Cincinnati in the 2014-15 season, so I'll have to be satisfied with the two recordings he has made for Sony Classics.

When I was in college in the early 1970s, a piano fan told me we were living in a Golden Age: not just the last moments of Artur Rubinstein and Vladimir Horowitz but the rise of Murray Perahia, Maurizio Pollini, Alfred Brendel and many others. Another one seems to be on the way.

Monday, September 22, 2014

The nicest man in country music

George Hamilton IV passed away last week the same way he did everything in his country music career: quietly and with dignity. Here's a long-ago performance of "Abilene," his biggest hit, in a medley with "Fort Worth, Dallas or Houston:"

I covered country music in the early 1980s and regularly interviewed singers and songwriters. (Highlight of my country music career: Profiling lead singer Joe Bonsall for the souvenir book sold on the Oak Ridge Boys' national tour.) And I never met anyone nicer than George Hamilton IV, who was living in Matthews at the time.

Outlaws were common then. Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings were hot, sometimes performing with Johnny Cash and Kris Kristofferson as The Highwaymen. The courtly crooners from the Don Gibson-Jim Reeves era had all but disappeared. Yet here came GH IV with his shy smile, his tuneful but unassertive voice and his easy style.

Most folks remember that he started as a gentle pop singer: "A Rose and a Baby Ruth" cracked the top 10 in 1956, "Why Don't They Understand" got there the next year, and he recorded an oddity called "The Teen Commandments" with fellow up-and-comers Johnny Nash and Paul Anka the year after that. Then "Abilene" went to the top spot on the country charts for four weeks in 1963 and changed his destiny.

I interviewed him more than 30 years ago, when I was a green writer in my 20s and he was just nine years younger than my dad. He took all the time I needed for the interview, fed me some history I didn't know about the industry and seemed pleased to share his point of view with a reporter for the smaller paper in town. (I started at The Charlotte News, which died in 1985.)

Over the years, I heard that other writers had similar experiences. His style would never permit him to become one of the most famous or wealthy singers in his business, but he stuck to it for 50 years. I admire that.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

The Spanish teacher and the rubber duck

When someone you know casually hands you a CD -- especially in the parking lot of a Harris-Teeter -- you think, "I'll listen to this once, dream up something pleasant to say the next time I meet this guy and drop it into the storage closet." Strangely, I didn't.

I listened all the way through "Como estas, mi amigo?" with pleasure. I even listened to a couple of songs twice. Here's an admittedly amateurish video of my favorite, "Pato de hule." That's composer-singer Jay Barron, a Spanish teacher at Providence Day School, onstage, and bass player Isaac Melendez bouncing around in front of him. The title means "Rubber ducky," and it's a tribute to a reassuring bathtub toy:

He created the CD to help beginning students of Spanish wrestle with simple concepts: colors, things found in nature, friendship, a desire to sing. Some numbers are in Spanish and English, some just in Spanish (with occasional spoken interjections in English), and most are rhythmically infectious. Besides Melendez, the album's full of good Latino musicians: percussionist Jaswar Acosta, guitarist Tony Arreaza, sax player Oscar Huerta.

Barron knows which song is his "hit," as he not only made this video at Fantafest last spring -- it's his only video, as far as I know -- but put the tune on the album twice, once in Spanish and once bilingually.

He's giving a CD release concert Saturday at 2 p.m. in the school auditorium at 5800 Sardis Rd. Tickets are $5, and you can get the CD for $10 there or through his Facebook site. Bring your own rubber duck and join in when he does "Pato de hule." I can't get the song out of my ears!

Monday, September 15, 2014

Thanks for 'Frank,' Back Alley Film Series

I would watch Michael Fassbender, one of the greatest actors of his generation, in any film he made. That includes one where he spends the movie inside a giant plastic head, as the leader of a willfully obscure rock band:

This unclassifiable picture also stars Domhnall Gleason as a would-be musician who lucks into a gig with the band -- he replaces a guy who attempted to drown himself, perhaps with reason -- and insists on trying to make the group famous, despite Frank's ambivalence (and possible mental illness) and his bandmates' loathing.

I write this not to recommend the movie to you, although I do, but to thank Back Alley Film Series for giving us a chance to see it on the big screen. It gets one airing at Carolina Cinemas Crownpoint, 9630 Monroe Rd. (at the North Sardis Road intersection), Thursday at 7:30 p.m.

Many people haven't yet heard about Back Alley, an arm of the long-running Charlotte Film Society. Folks may know the CFS for its Saturday Night Cine Club, a mix of foreign and alternative films that didn't get full-run distribution in Charlotte.

Back Alley sprang into being to promote films that didn't suit the Cine Club audience, which is often older and more conservative in its tastes. Back Alley has run an odd but appealing gamut from the restored 1927 silent "Metropolis" to an upcoming 40th anniversary tribute to "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre."

It brought both of Lars von Trier's recent features, the provocatively thoughtful "Melancholia" and the four-hour "Nymphomaniac," in which a sex addict recounts erotic experiences to the man who saved her after a beating. If Back Alley applied a motto to its overall programming, it might be "Something for anybody and nothing that's for everybody."

The CFS recently embarked on a third project, Charlotte Film Lab, to bring writers and directors to town to explain their philosophy and process. For most of its first 30 years, the society had a sophisticated, almost highbrow tone. Today it appeals to highbrows, lowbrows and every brow in between, and we're better off for it.

P.S. As of Friday night, Back Alley has added one more screening. (The first sold out.) It's at 7:30 p.m. Monday at the same theater. Check it out!

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Screen Gems, 'No Good Deed' and the big lie

For the first time in my 27 years as a movie critic at The Observer, a distributor has cancelled every advance screening in North America of a movie that was supposed to be shown to critics that night. This is the trailer for "No Good Dead," the film in question:

The official excuse from Screen Gems -- hold your nose -- is this:

"Screen Gems has decided to cancel the advance screenings of NO GOOD DEED. There is a plot twist in the film that they do not want to reveal, as it will affect the audiences' experience when they see the film in theaters. They apologize for any inconvenience."

Now, if this were true, it would be insulting. It implies that critics are so stupid, careless or mean-spirited that they're likely to give the plot twist away, accidentally or otherwise, and readers have to be protected from them. But movies with plot twists get shown week after week, and that doesn't happen: "The Sixth Sense," a masterpiece with a devastating final scene, got reviewed everywhere with no revelations about the ending.

No, it's fair to assume this movie simply stinks. Screen Gems must suddenly have realized that and decided negative response would be so great that the film is better off with no advance publicity. Poor suckers determined to see it will still spend their money on opening weekend; by the time word of mouth spreads, Screen Gems may have recouped its cost.

Studios sometimes decide not to schedule any screening at all, because they don't need reviews (usually, in the case of a huge action movie or a sequel), because the target audience for that film seldom reads reviews, or because the movie is trash. Screenings can even be set and cancelled because the film isn't opening here, after all, or the studio later decides to screen only in North America's top 10 markets. (We're about number 20.)

But I've never been invited before and been told on the day of the screening not to go. The only reasonable conclusion is that "No Good Deed" must be one bad dud.